The battle for "youth" working environments

Youth unemployment in South Africa was the focus of an M&G Critical Thinking Forum held in May. Panelists were Xolani Gwala (moderator), Gerhard Papenfus, Professor Avinash Govindjee, Dr Miriam Altman and Ian Macun. (Photo: Elvis Ntombela)

Youth unemployment in South Africa was the focus of an M&G Critical Thinking Forum held in May. Panelists were Xolani Gwala (moderator), Gerhard Papenfus, Professor Avinash Govindjee, Dr Miriam Altman and Ian Macun. (Photo: Elvis Ntombela)

Unlike any traditional wrestling match, no blood was spilt, no bones were broken and even egos and relations emerged intact after the issue of youth employment was debated at the latest Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum. 

The event was sponsored by the National Planning Commission and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German political foundation that supports efforts at democratic consolidation worldwide.

The debate in main was less about the dire situation many millions of young South Africans find themselves in, but more the challenges to integrating them into the labour market to ensure they obtain some level of long-term social security.

This type of security is traditionally provided by the ability to invest in a retirement fund, or at the very least by contributing to the Unemployment Insurance Fund, but is undermined by pitifully low wages or (the more serious) inability to find work.

Professor Avinash Govindjee of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, assuming the nom de guerre The Lawyer, pointed out that the biggest challenge was clearly the levels of unemployment and the increasing attraction of the informal economy that skirted around legislated protection.

He said social security through a system of grants for the youth, especially the unemployed youth, was a dead-end street that the country simply could ill afford.

He pointed rather to interventions such as the 2013 Youth Employment Accord struck between government, employers and trade unions to establish a social compact that aims to accelerate youth employment. Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel is on record as saying that the accord has created 300000 jobs since it was signed.

Govindjee said this showed that such mechanisms could be part of the answer and that extending the reliance on government grants was clearly not a way forward, despite evidence of the positive influence grants have had in alleviating the burden on poor households.

The Policymaker, Dr Miriam Altman, who sits on the National Planning Commission, stepped into the ring in support of The Lawyer’s arguments, cautioning that grants are meant to support households, not people of working age.

“The most important thing is to get people active and working and starting on some kind of earnings trajectory. Having said that, the context is one in which life chances are poor right now, so the reality facing many people is they may not even be eating properly, much less working,” she said.

Alternative options

The social grant system should therefore focus on the most vulnerable of the population, with other mechanisms needed to get the youth involved in the labour market. The economic impact from extending the child support grant to the age of 24, she said, would be an additional R18-billion burden on the fiscus.

Altman suggested some of the alternative interventions and support could be in the form of vocational training, wage subsidies or opportunities grants (such as training or placement vouchers) that could alleviate at least part of the burden on the youth.

The labour department’s contestant in the ring, The Sociologist, who arguably had the weakest footing in the match — given the private sector’ strong condemnation of South Africa’s labour policies — showed he was up to the fight. Ian Macun, director of collective bargaining in the department, argued that substantial interventions and changes in policy had eased some of the barriers to youth employment. 

He cited the youth employment tax and amendments to the labour laws that extend protection to part-time and non-standard employment. He acknowledged that more still needed to be done to bridge the gap between employers and job seekers to accelerate the intake of youth into the job market.

“A social compact is a necessary component to get the economy and labour relations back on track,” he said. “We have to think creatively about how we achieve that. Ideally one would want to have certain trade-offs that entice people to commit to trust each other more and work co-operatively together. 

“But that doesn’t happen just out of goodwill; there needs to be some way of holding the show together. And the challenge for us is to identify those issues that we could put on the table and talk to our social partners about.”

He suggested that one of the discussion points, certainly with trade unions, would be to find a way to provide a minimum wage that would make a contribution to a retirement scheme affordable.

The plight of employers

Enter the Provocateur: Gerhard Papenfus, chief executive of the National Employers’ Association, which represents more than 23 000 mainly small and medium businesses.

An entertainer throughout, Papenfus resembled the boisterous, unapologetic swaggering personality that wrestling audiences love to hate. 

He had the audience caught between uproarious laughter and stunned silence with statements such as: “It is better to be abused in a job than not to be abused sitting at home”, “The problem is they come into the workplace totally unskilled and with a bag of rights” and “You arrive with an attitude of rights. Well, you know what, I’m not interested in employing you.”

Papenfus made an unapologetic case for the struggle employers face to create employment in an environment seemingly stacked against them.

“[The current and amended labour laws] have succeeded in completely taking away any appetite to employ anybody,” he said. 

“The more protection you get, the less your chances of employment. Why would you employ a young person arriving at a work place with no skills and a huge bunch of rights behind them?”

He suggested that employers feel unwelcome and have gained the impression they are seen as abusers of employees. A change in attitude, he said, would go a long way in encouraging companies to employ more people.

“Unless we change the environment and remove some of the rights in terms of dismissal, unless we curtail certain union organisational rights and severely change our collective bargaining structures, we are not going to create work,” Papenfus said.

Finding solutions

In a signal of solidarity the wrestlers concluded the debate, less with a joint victory lap holding one another’s arms high than with the admission that the fight against youth unemployment is a war, not a single battle.

The Sociologist suggested that incentives should be made simpler and easier to access, while the Policymaker proposed experimentation with different interventions aimed at different sectors and groupings to see what worked best.

The Lawyer supported this line of thought, saying that the Employment Incentive Act had already created about 30 000 jobs, which showed that it was working but that other avenues should also be explored.

In a show of conciliation, The Provocateur conceded he was not a proponent of abusing the rights of workers, but that the current environment was not conducive to job creation either. 

“Employers want to employ, they enjoy employing and seeing people develop. It brings fulfillment, but we’re extremely disappointed that we’re now in an environment [in which] we can’t employ [people].”